COOPERSVILLE, Mich. (WOOD) — A decade after fairlife launched its specialized milk product line, the company has grown to include hundreds of people in Coopersville, according to plant director Phil LaMothe.
“We see Michigan strategically as the best place to grow and expand. We want to grow here. We love Coopersville. The milk shed or the dairy industry here is strong and we can make the best products here in West Michigan,” LaMothe said.
But something is standing in the way of expansion for fairlife and other area agribusinesses: wastewater infrastructure.
“We have expansion plans for additional lines, additional production, but we are currently out of capacity throughout the whole supply chain network. We can’t make our products fast enough. And so, with these expansion plans and the infrastructure and wastewater being our limiting factor, this project is critical for us to continue to grow,” LaMothe told the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s Strategic Fund Board Wednesday.
That $65 million project is designed to ease the burden on Coopersville’s wastewater treatment plant by creating a pressurized 30-inch pipeline and lift station transporting all wastewater north to the Muskegon County Resource Recovery Center, which is currently treating only about a third of the wastewater load it was built to manage. The new pipeline will span 25 miles in southern Muskegon County and northern Ottawa County and connect to Coopersville, Polkton Township, Ravenna and Ravenna Township. The project also includes modifying portions of the Coopersville plant to support flow redirection.
Wednesday morning, the MEDC Strategic Fund Board approved a $60 million performance-based grant funded by the Strategic Outreach and Attraction Reserve to support the pipeline project. Fairlife plans to cover the remaining $5 million project cost.
Muskegon County Administrator Mark Eisenbarth says his county and Coopersville have been pursuing the project since 2008, but were always held up by funding — until now.
“This is an opportunity that also is over a decade in the making. As fairlife and Continental Dairy in particular in Coopersville have continued to grow in the region, the Coopersville municipal Wastewater Authority in partnership with other entities has continued to make all the investments that they could to continue to see this important sector grow. It got to a point that this regional partnership and regional approach was necessary to build this partnership with Muskegon County that will not only allow fairlife and Continental to grow, but also will allow other companies like Swanson Pickle, DeVries Meats, Applegate (Dairy), and other future companies to continue to invest in this area,” explained Joshua Hundt of the MEDC.
Investment by those five companies is expected to total up to $187 million and create up to 145 new jobs in the area. Fairlife alone plans to add 45 jobs next year with the expansion, according to LaMothe. The MEDC says that doesn’t even account for the 884 Michigan suppliers these five companies work with, which may also grow because of this investment in infrastructure.
“We are supporting the pickle industry with a pretty far reach across Michigan,” said Katie Hensley, chief financial officer of Swanson Pickle.
Her family’s fourth-generation business grows its own pickling cucumbers in Muskegon County but also buys them from another eight counties in Michigan.
Right now, Swanson Pickle hauls its wastewater by truck to the Muskegon County treatment facility. Adding wastewater infrastructure to Ravenna would be a game-changer for the company.
“We would be able to completely remove those (trucks) from the road and additionally add value and expand right here,” she said.
MEDC President and CEO Quentin Messer Jr. says the investment is transformative for Michigan’s $104.7 billion food and agriculture industry, which employs approximately 805,000 people and accounts for 17% of the state’s economy.
“We have the second most diversified agricultural economy in the U.S. behind California. And this allows us to capture more of those agricultural dollars in Michigan. Absent this, we would’ve seen more and more leakage of our Michigan farmers sending their crops to go down South to be processed, then to be shipped back into Meijer and … SpartanNash and other great retailers to be sold. We want to capture the full totality to agricultural spend and this allows us to do this,” Messer said.
Fairlife plans to begin investing in the pipeline this year; the project is expected to be complete by the summer of 2025.